If this post were a television show about this trip, the opening would start with an acoustic guitar playing a few cords and the lyrics:
Who says you can’t go home?
Who says you cant go back?
Been all around the world, and as a matter of fact,
there’s only one place left I want to go…
This was my return to Madrid; the city where I spent a long, hot (boy was it hot), summer in between my second and third years of law school in 2006; at 24 going on 25, taking a non-paying job in an international law practice because I wanted to be an “international” trade lawyer. (Spoiler alert, I became an international trade lawyer).
It was a different world back then: thirteen years predates international cell phone calling plans and AirBnB and Google translate and all of the things that make this world smaller and more accessible. Landing in Barajas on an overnight flight from Chicago O’Hare, my Spanish was rustier than I realized and shortly after clearing Customs, I feared that this might be the biggest mistake of my life. Over a series of weeks, however, the immense challenges – managing the language, fitting in at work, and having to use calling cards at a pay phone on a Madrid street corner to call home – faded away as Madrid began to wrap me in her warm embrace and I found a new friend.
Thirteen years later, a Boeing 777 touches down at Barajas. This time I’m not coming to Madrid alone. I’m joined by my partner, my co-captain, also an international trade lawyer, and also an external on foreign soil during law school . There is no sense of dread or worry, but excitement; excitement to see and share the places that transformed my life. Were they still there? What would I feel when my feet hit the same city street as I had over a decade before?
Over the last several years, it would be fair to say that Spain has not been firing on all cylinders: growing unemployment, increasing immigration challenges, and a rising right wing body politic (see 2019 election of members of Party Vox). There remain legitimate questions of Catalan independence. Madrid has also felt acutely the impact of global terrorism. Madrid appears to wear these macro-geo-political issues on its sleeve. It is a city of contrasts: grit and refinement, old grannies and babies, immigrants and Spaniards, blue collar and businessmen, Real and Atletico. On a weekend to Madrid, we wanted to experience it all and by Monday morning, Madrid once again embraced me the way she had when I needed it 13 years ago.
Three perfect days in Madrid begin with a walk of the major sights beginning in the Puerto del Sol.
The Puerto del Sol is where 25,000 Madrilenos celebrate the new year by eating a grape for each bell strike on the central clock tower at midnight. It’s a great place to start a walk in Spain as this is the location of the kilometro cero plaque representing the symbolic center of Spain.
From there, it is a short walk to the Plaza Mayor. The Plaza Mayor has been a central square in Madrid since the beginning of the 16th century and is now an event space and a place to congregate, walk around, shop, and eat.
After a morning of walking these sights, we went to lunch at the Mercado San Miguel. Originally built in 1916, the market was a traditional farmers market, falling into disrepair before 2003, after which it was purchased by private equity and reopened as a tapas market.
From there, it is a short walk to the gorgeous Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de la Alamudena.
The cathedral is in the baroque style. The interior has this gorgeous brightly-colored painted ceiling that is different than most European cathedrals with the exception of the painted churches in Northern Italy.
A worthwhile crowd-fighting tour is the Palacio Real de Madrid, the Royal family’s palace.
Stunning opulence that you would expect from Spanish royalty, the palace is perched on a hilltop above the sprawling wooded area of the Campo del Moro. Queen Maria Cristina converted this rather sparse space into an English-style garden and the feeling you get is the same feeling as you get in Versailles. Long garden rows and glimpses of the palace up on high. It is remarkable.
Sunset in Madrid does not get any better than at the Templo de Debod. This is an Egyptian temple dating to the 2nd century BC. It was given to Spain by the Egyptian government to save it from floods following the construction of the Aswan Dam.
The park of the temple was no different than when I would go there 10 years ago with my 3 Euro bottle of wine to watch the sun set over beyond the hillside. Kids were running around, it was date-night for couples, friends were meeting before a long night out. This is what Madrid was all about for me. The interconnectedness of people and place. This was the place.
Part of our dinner was at the super modern Mercado de San Anton, a short walk from our hotel near Chueca. This area is so cool, the bars are popular, the outdoor seating is full, and the vibe feels trendy.
This was museum day. This was easy with the Madrid museum pass, which allows you to skip the line and enter the museums when you want to. All of these museums are located along the same grand Paseo del Prado, which has a lovely middle of the road walkway and tree lined park.
The Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza (the Thyssen) is our first stop. This museum is Europe’s largest private art collection and is now owned by the Spanish state. The rooms follow a logical order and make you imagine how big of a home must have existed for all of these works to be displayed. The collection includes some of the greats like Caravaggio, Van Eyck, Mondrian, Monet, Sargent, Van Gogh in the 1000+ paintings.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina (the Reina Sofia)’
The predominant and significant reason to going to the Reina Sofia is Picasso’s Guernica.
You can’t take photos of the piece in the museum and frankly, I’m not going to replicate it here because it would do it a disservice. This is Picasso’s siren call for the world to pay attention to the Spanish Civil War. The painting takes on the bombing of Guernica, a town in Basque Spain that was conducted by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy on the side of Spanish Nationalists. Painted in Paris, the gray, black, and white painting takes up a wall. It is 11.5 feet tall and 25.5 feet wide. The painting portrays the suffering of people and animals in the chaos of war. It is a must see and is so thought-provoking.
Plaza de Jesus between the Thyssen and the Reina Sofia has the best tapas options in the area. Head to La Dolores for an old school style of tapas bar where you make your way to the bar and order loudly. The tapas are top shelf and it feels a bit like going back in time.
Just up the street is Cerveceria Cervantes, which has an expansive and fantastic menu.
Museo Nacional del Prado (the Prado)
The Prado’s collection dates back almost 200 years and is described as a museum of painters not of paintings. This is because, according to the Prado, its collection reflects the collecting styles of 16th and 17th-century monarchs, which collected as many pieces of art as possible and not necessarily the artist. You can spend all day at the Prado, but highlights include (the no photo zone) Goya’s Black Paintings and Velazquez’s Las Meninas (one of my favorites of all time). The Prado also has one of the world’s largest Flemish painting collections in the world.
Restaurant Lua is getting all kinds of play right now. Chef Manuel Dominguez offers a tasting menu that is pleasing to the eye and evokes emotion through smell and taste. His team is really warm and welcoming and he greeted us to welcome us into the restaurant. It was a truly wonderful experience.
Sunday in Madrid is for wandering, and that is what we did in the La Latina quarter, Parque del Retiro, and Salamanca neighborhood.
El Rastro is Madrid’s largest flea market. It’s fun to walk around with a coffee in hand and observe some of the wares and people watch. The best part of this are the side markets where antiques can be found including some very large marble sculptures that are too unwieldy for any overhead space. For an easier stroll, enter El Rastro (located on the Calle Ribera de Curtidores) from the La Latina metro station. It’s all downhill…
A lunch-time stroll around El Retiro is wonderful on a Sunday when all of Madrid is outside taking in puppet shows, exploring used books, riding bicycles, having picnics, boating in Retiro Pond. These gardens have existed in one form or another since the 15th century and belonged only to the Royal Family until the mid 19th century when it became a public park. This is a great way to get a *feel* for what it is like to live in Madrid and not just visit.
The Salamanca neighborhood just to the north of the park evokes Old World money. It is the one of the wealthiest and expensive areas in Madrid. The buildings and apartments look marvelous. Snoop around.
We finished our day and our trip to Madrid with a tapas tour in Latina. The Calle de la Cava Baja is the place to go, we’re told. We enjoyed three very different places: the inexpensive and popular with the younger crowd, Txakolina Pintxoteca Madrileno, the family-friendly Casa Lucas, and the hip and chic Taberna Tempranillo. Our favorite and the one we will go back to over and over again is the Taberna Tempranillo, which feels like a secret wine cave that serves amazing octopus.
An after dinner walk takes us back through the Plaza Mayor and back to the Puerto del Sol, where our weekend began and where we’ll return again.